Each year in July, we celebrate America's birthday with houses and people across the states draped in patriotic flags and decorated in red, white and blue. Those who are culinary inclined planned picnic-themed menus and table-top centerpieces with a patriotic flare. Families vacationed together, and small nostalgic towns had community parades. But now that the family vacations are over, the picnic fare consumed and fireworks have fizzled, I ask you this month to contemplate what is your concept of personal freedom?
While patriotic freedom is an outward display, personal freedom is found by looking within. Personal freedom is the choices made that decide the possibilities and opportunities that become your future. John Galsworthy said that “A man (or woman) is the sum of his (or her) actions, of what he (or she) has done, of what he (or she) can do, nothing else.” Personal freedom is taking responsibility for how your life unfolded in the past, how it appears in the present moment, and how you wish for it to look in the future.
Personal freedom sounds simple, but it requires work. It entails self-awareness – knowing and understanding your character and emotions; also, it is understanding the problems you create and knowing the strategies you employ to combat your feelings, especially unpleasant ones. That sounds effortless, but how much of your life is spent on autopilot and not connecting with what you are doing or why you are doing it? Sometimes you aren’t even aware of how you are responding to the issues that creep up in your lives, and I would guess many of your responses are habitual. The mind files away acceptable reactions for different emotional events, and it automatically retrieves those reactions when you are faced with needing to present an emotional response. It’s your go-to reactions storage facility. When you are self-aware, you notice what you are doing, and you can answer the question why.
This requires that you recognize your actions. First, if you examine your childhood, you can as an adult, identify where you learned some of your responses. You were likely taught to be obedient and compliant when you were young, and because you wanted to please your parents or caretakers, you obeyed the boundaries they established for you. As a result, you likely became a perfectionist or a people pleaser or you learned to disconnect and avoid connections. As an adult, you must let go of or at least re-examine how you were told to behave and believe and discover what is true for you now. Choosing to not assess those responses leaves you making unconscious life choices purely out of social conditioning. When you do that, it results in anxiety (worrying about the future) and depression (fretting over your past actions that cannot be changed). When you become aware that you are still seeking to please others, then it is time to reclaim your freedom and discover your authentic self.
Once you identify and move past your early-life conditioning, you must seek liberation from other people’s opinions. People like to share unsolicited advice about lives and relationships that aren’t their own. While some of the advice can be valuable and the advice giver means well, most of the time it is just unfavorable opinions on how they perceive you dealt with issues in your life. I am not saying that you shouldn’t listen to the advice of others because there is wisdom in what other people share; however, not everyone is “fit” to be an advice giver in your intimate inner circle. You live with the consequence of your decisions, so perhaps Becky’s opinion about how you managed the breakup with your ex-boyfriend isn’t any of her business. She is just providing her opinion, but she isn’t you. Becky does not bear the consequence of that life decision that you made. If you know what you believe, then you are free to base your life’s decisions on our own research and ideas. Other people’s opinions are a product of what they believe and what they have experienced, and truthfully, they are none of your business. At the end of the day, you must decide for yourself what piece of advice or opinion you will take because you own your decisions. When you get clear on what you believe and unburden yourself from external expectations or opinions, roles, and obligations, you are stepping towards your true freedom.
The next step to personal freedom is acknowledging your feelings. Many are unaware of their feelings because they have strategically placed distractions in front of them, so they don’t have to process anything unpleasant. Common distractions are television programs, social media, working late, and even scheduling home to-do list tasks, too. In stillness, your buried feelings are allowed to bubble up to the surface to be dealt with. In stillness, you can practice mindfulness. When the feelings come to the surface, you can identify what that feeling is - are you angry, frustrated, or sad? Once you identify the feeling, search for the root cause, and then make a positive change. Make a conscious effort to pause when the feeling shows up again, create a change if needed, and then let it go. It is impossible to improve your life and embrace your freedom when your distractions are holding you captive.
How do you become more self-aware?
1. Practice Mindfulness. As stated above, it is imperative that you begin to recognize what is taking place in your mind and body and in the environment that surrounds you. You must make a conscious choice to be in the present moment. The more mindful you are, the more control you will exert over your emotions. One of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness is to meditate. Start by becoming aware of your breath and how your body feels and responds to the environment around you. Pay attention to the thoughts that creep in, note them (to address later), and let them drift away. If you have a hard time achieving a meditative state, try a guided meditation.
2. Journal your feelings. Journaling is a fantastic outlet for releasing your emotions, but it also has other benefits. When you write a journal, you slow your mind and clarify your thoughts in a methodical way. You are free from other people’s thoughts and opinions, and you can write from your perspective - a journal tells your stories. Not only that, but through writing, you discover patterns in your feelings, and that leads to noticing repeated themes showing up in your life and better self-awareness. If a repeated theme keeps showing up, it is time for a different response.
3. Practice active listening - even when you are sharing your thoughts with others. Often when people vent, they are talking out their problems and finding their own solutions. When you provide a listening ear, you are gaining insight into the feelings of those you care about. It fosters empathy within you. While you are listening to your friend, you are likely reflecting on your problems that relate to the topic being shared. Active listening helps to identify and solve complicated situations within your own life. Also, when you are listening to another person discuss what they are experiencing, you are likely to share advice if asked. When you give positive feedback to others, you are then able to turn that positive voice on in your own self-talk. You may find that instead of berating yourself about a decision you made, you might hear encouraging inner dialogue letting you know that you are on the right track.
4. Become a digital minimalist. That sounds like an odd suggestion for promoting self-awareness, but it is important to remove distractions that keep you from knowing yourself. Adopting a lifestyle, even temporarily, that promotes digital minimalism, i.e., silencing or taking a break from the news, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, will help you gain focus on your thoughts, your dreams, on who you want to become. Distractions can lead you to getting stuck in life; you miss a deadline (even self-imposed) and find yourself in a procrastination cycle. When procrastination shows up, he brings his friend negative self-talk with him. You feel bad about not carrying out what you set out to do because you were stuck browsing Twitter. Eliminating distractions can help you focus better and identify the challenges that come to mind when you are able to center yourself and examine what you need to do to reach your full potential.
Freedom cannot exist in a world without self-awareness. When you are self-aware, you know who you are. You know your likes and dislikes. You know what direction you want to steer your life in. You see your strengths, weaknesses, obsessions, beliefs, thoughts, and your emotions. You are no longer shackled by other people’s opinion of you. Moreover, this practice teaches you to be empathetic towards your family and friends. Understanding yourself helps you relate to them at a deeper level too, and it helps you to become the wife, husband, partner, sister, brother, friend that you have always wanted to become. When you are living a life in this way, you take responsibility for your actions instead of blaming others when things don’t go as expected. Responsibility leads to true freedom and the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Maybe the next time you slip into your patriotic Fourth of July shirt, or you see fireworks lighting up the night sky, remember that you have the ability to be inwardly free just as well just by choosing to pursue a practice of self-awareness.